Flash Fiction: Backsliders Anonymous

Flickr cc John Lambert Pearson

Flickr cc John Lambert Pearson

“Good evening, everyone!” Cheryl said, greeting the dozen folding chairs arranged in a circle, half of which were actually in use, with her regular cheerleader-esque pep. The blonde woman in three-inch heals and a light pink suit was precariously holding a plate of oatmeal cookies in her right hand and an intimidatingly large stack of still-warm-from-the-church-printer handouts in her left. She looked like a Mary Kay representative turned tenured professor.

“It looks like we have a new member!”

“Hey,” a girl sporting a hoodie and jeans combo said with a nod of acknowledgement in Cheryl’s direction. The rest of the backsliders stared at the stitching on their shoes. “I’m Laura,” said the hoodie girl. “My dad made me come.”

“Wonderful!” Cheryl exclaimed as she sat the amoeba-shaped cookies down on the table by a pitcher of room-temperature orange juice. No one found themselves in the church basement of Second Church of Faith on a Wednesday night looking at their shoes because of the food. No one came for the food, not even Adam, a tall, skinny man whose sweaters all looked like they’d likely made regular guest appearances on The Cosby Show. Although, he wasn’t quite sure why he was here, to be honest. Or why he’d come the week before. Or the week before that. Or the week before that.

Adam’s weekly bible study had held an intervention one Monday — demanding, in unison, that he take immediate, drastic action in dealing with his blackslidden ways. Cheryl said the first step was admitting you had a problem but, despite sitting in his usual chair every Wednesday evening for the past few weeks, he hadn’t gotten there yet. His entire bible study group thought he had a problem, so he just kept coming. He must have a problem. But he just couldn’t see his problem yet, not for himself.

So he continued coming, hoping one of these weeks it’d finally click why it was so bad that he’d said during Monday night bible study that he didn’t bother with daily devotions — reading through three chapters in his bible a day, with the goal being to work his way through the entire book every year, and closing it up with a prayer that was exactly fifteen-minutes long. It was the Second Church of Faith way; it’s what everyone did or at least said they were attempting to do. Well, everyone except Adam, he wasn’t even trying.

“Adam,” Cheryl asked with an abnormally big smile, “why don’t you get us started?”

“Hello, my name is Adam,” said Adam. “And I’m a backslider — or at least that’s what the folks in my bible study seem to think. I dunno. Maybe I’m just a different type of Christian, ya know? ‘Daily devotions’ just feel too forced, too rigid for my liking.”

“Lovely, Adam,” Cheryl’s smile began to resemble a bad botox job as it became tighter, more forced. “Thank you for being so honest and open. Just keep coming, and you’ll get there.”

“But I’m not convinced skipping ‘daily devotions’ is such a bad thing,” said Adam, he was the Backsliders Anonymous member Cheryl found the most challenging to deal with. “It’s not like I never read my bible or pray — I pray when I take my dog, Otis, walking. It feels more organic. Why doesn’t that count?”

“Why don’t we try to keep on task this week, Adam. We want everyone to have a chance to talk. Now, how long has it been since you last backslid?”

“How long has it been since I last missed my last ‘daily devotion?’ Uh, I dunno. A couple of days.”

“Well, that’s a start, Adam. Although, you really need to start using the daily check sheet I printed out for you last week, otherwise you won’t know how you’re really doing. Just check the box next to the date every time you’re victorious. It’ll help keep you accountable and eventually will inspire you to keep going when you see how many check marks you’ve made. And inspiration and recovery is what we’re about here at Backsliders Anonymous!”

“But I don’t like checklists. They make me feel guilt-tripped into ‘spending time with God.’ Maybe I’m not the daily devotional sort of Christian?”

“Adam, just because you’ve slipped up doesn’t mean you’re not ‘the daily devotional sort’ — God wants us all to be that sort. Just remember, there’s always hope.”

“I guess so. But I don’t always like reading the bible. It’s kinda dry. And some of the stuff in the Old Testament is creepy — like, the woman who’s cut into little bite-sized pieces and her pieces are sent off like some gross Old Testament version of the three-days-to-pay-or-we-evict notices my apartment’s always taping on people’s doors. What’s up with that? It’s like reading something right out of a slasher film!”

“Adam!” The pitch of Cheryl’s voice rose as if he’d just sworn in the middle of Pastor’s 20 minute Sunday prayer. “This is not the place for that kind of question — we’ve talked about that before, remember? Backsliders Anonymous is a safe place to find support as you work towards spiritual recovery. I think we need to remember why we’re here. Everyone, repeat with me:”

“I will read my bible and pray, every single day,” five of the six backsliders dutifully repeated in unison, even Adam. Although, his bushy eyebrows now seemed to be frustrated and his brown eyes seemed to feel trapped, as if they were looking for the fire escape.

Laura, the newest addition to the church flunkies, hadn’t joined in on the chant. She sat there, leaning back in her uncomfortable metal chair with her skinny high schooler arms crossed in a mix of apathy and defiance.

“What if I don’t want to talk to God?” Laura asked after the chant had ended.

The circle of metal chairs was silent.

“Laura, that’s great you’re being so honest and open already!” Cheryl encouraged with her unique style of intensity that made Laura wonder if she was high or had just ingested a few too many shots of espresso that morning. “It’s good to be open, however, the goal of this meeting — as your father has likely already instructed you — is to help you to recover spiritually from your backsliddeness. And the first step of this journey is admitting you have a problem.”

“But I don’t have a problem,” Laura said with a shrug.

“My dear, your father has signed you up for our weekly meetings because you’ve become backslidden in your faith. That means that you have a problem. A serious problem! But this is a safe place because everyone here has a spiritual problem,” Cheryl paused, “Well, almost everyone.” She smiled to herself.

“What if I don’t want to ‘recover spiritually?’ What if I think God’s just a jackass who lets bad things happen to good people — people like my mom?”

Cheryl squished her face together as if she’d just eaten something sour. But she knew how to handle such outright defiance, and with that she dropped an inch-thick pack of paper in Laura’s lap. “There,” she said. “That’s your homework for this week. No more off-topic questions until you’ve read that. Now,” turning to the other five church-basement prisoners, “does anyone else have any questions?”

After a pause, Cheryl felt like she’d successfully gotten the group back on track. “Now that we’re done with silly questions for the evening, let’s move on to the important business. Joe, why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us how long it’s been since you’ve last backslidden.”

And with that, Adam and Laura joined the rest of the backsliders in analyzing the workmanship of their sneakers.

A Creative Little Girl

Flickr cc Lauren Manning

Flickr cc Lauren Manning

Once there was a little girl. A creative little girl.

She sketched foreign alien planets with deep craters and rocket ships made out of pencils blasting into space. She created clown costumes out of cardboard, construction paper, doilies, and oodles of scotch tape. She molded fantasy and sci-fic inspired creatures based on the pictures in her head. She created a treasure chest out of aluminum foil, over-sized beads, and glue. She drew raw, sometimes grisly pictures advocating the fight against poverty. She danced, carefully, to a record while imagining she was a princess in a far away land.

Once there was a little girl. A confident little girl.

Her paintings and sketches were likely never destined to hang in a great art gallery, but that didn’t bother her. Her work was creative, original, beautiful and she knew it. Her biggest concern, when it came to her artistic endeavors, was that her little brother would “copy” her. Her art wasn’t done for praises; she never had a chance of winning a drawing contest because she always submitted her second-best piece; why would she part with her best one?

Once there was a little girl. A courageous little girl.

A little girl who wasn’t afraid to proudly showcase her artwork on her wall. A little girl who sang at the top of her lungs. A little girl who was thrilled to try something new, whether it was woodworking, oil pastels, or writing a character with a British accent. A little girl who could cut and glue and draw and tape without the fear of whether the end result would be “good enough.”

Once there was a little girl. A creative, confident,  courageous little girl. And something horrible happened: she learned about artists.

She learned a terrible fun-killing word — artist. She learned that some people were “artists” — talented, special, gifted people whose “art” didn’t look anything like her play. She learned that grownups don’t play with color or imagine whimsical worlds or cut up construction paper for fun; not unless they were an artist.

Once there was a little girl. A creative, confident, courageous little girl. And something horrible happened: she grew up.

As she packed up her dollies and teddy bears, she also packed up her paints and her scissors. She packed up her sketch books and her glitter. She packed up her yarn and her Play-Doh. She packed up her markers and her costumes. But worst of all, she packed up her creativity, her confidence,  her courage.

Once there was a now-grownup little girl. A self-conscious now-grownup little girl.

She no longer believed anyone would “copy” her; now she feared they’d judge her. She no longer called it play; now she called it art. She no longer wanted to try anything she could; now she limited herself to the few things she thought she was “actually good at.”

Once there was a now-grownup little girl. A nervous, curious now-grownup little girl.

She was introduced to a new type of play; at first she could only copy what other people had made because she was too scared she’d do it “wrong.”  She practiced collaging; remembering, slowly, how fun an afternoon spent with scissors and glue could be.

She cautiously stepped out again; this time she tried something very scary. She practiced writing fiction; remembering, slowly, how fun it was to make up characters and whole other worlds.

She called it “entertainment,” but knew that, unlike entertainment, it made her feel whole. She called herself “not-an-artist,” because she felt she needed to differentiate herself from the “real artists.” She called it “therapeutic,” which is just a grownup word for a nice way to spend an evening. She called it “practice,” which is just a grownup word for play.

Once there was a now-grownup little girl. A creative, almost confident, closer-to-being courageous  now-grownup little girl.

She’d forgotten so many things about color, fantasy, and play as she’d grownup, including the most important thing: it was fun. And remembering that, made all the difference.

Flash Fiction: Until Death

Flickr cc Wally Gobetz

Flickr cc Wally Gobetz

“Your Majesty, King Umfrey, Protector and Ruler of the Known World,” Bacwin the prophet, wearing a brown hooded cloak and holding a carved oak staff, began in his usual halting voice, “and Lady Avelia, the Blood-Path Ceremony has begun. My Lord, take the Lady Avelia’s hand and escort her through the pieces.”

The severed remains of three heifers, five goats, and a dozen turtledoves lay in two straight, gruesome lines—the heads and front legs on the right, back legs and back ends on the left. The grassy field behind the Ocean Blue Palace—the gods demanded that all covenants be cut under the sky—was drenched with deep red blood.  All marriage covenants within the Known World were cut by severing animals, usually only one of each kind, but when a king was married there were so many freshly killed animals that the bride and groom had to walk through entrails and pools of blood.

Avelia tried, but it was useless, to keep her elegantly embroidered crushed-velvet skirt out of the carnage.  Brides never wore their deep crimson wedding gowns again; after the wedding ceremony was over, it was impossible to get the blood and stench out.

 

The People of the Known World believed that blood is powerful, spiritual.  The red bridal gown represented the cutting of a covenant in the sight of the gods as well as virginity; the groom’s parents would check the sheets the morning after the wedding night and if there wasn’t evidence that she’d bled, they could demand a higher bride price or have her stoned that afternoon.  Therefore, it was common for a bride to sneak a small knife or sewing needle into her bedroom so that, after her husband had fallen asleep, she could insure there was a large enough stain to satisfy her in-laws.

But Avelia wouldn’t be packing a knife or needle; she’d been married before. On her left hand was a gold memorial ring with a black gemstone, dedicated to her newly deceased husband, Gerard.  The inscription on the inside read: “The cruel seas, remember, took him in November.”

It’d only been a month since her husband Gerard, a soldier in the King’s army, had died in a battle on the Great Sea. Every time Gerard had left to fight in a battle he’d taken a few strands of Avelia’s black hair that he’d kept in his coin purse; he’d claimed her hair would bring him luck that would help him return to her.  But it hadn’t worked this time.

Avelia had put away her black-lace mourning veil that very afternoon. She hadn’t worn it for the mandatory year prescribed to widows, but even tradition can’t argue with the King of the Known World.

 

The December air was cold and the sea breeze was strong as King Umfrey and Avelia slowly walked down the Blood-Path.  Weddings were somber; everyone was silent; there was no music, only the light sound of rain.  Occasionally, one of the guards would scare off a bird that had decided the new flesh looked appetizing.  Or someone would swat at the flies.

Old Bacwin tapped his staff on the ground to call the crowd’s attention as the couple arrived at the end of the Blood-Path. “We are gathered here, as the Great God of the Sea and the many other gods look down upon us, to witness the cutting of a marriage covenant.  Exchange your robes.”

Avelia gave the King her blood-red cloak, which he put on; in addition to being traditional bridal attire, the color helped to hide the actual blood it’d been dragged through.  The King gave Avelia his midnight-blue robe with a great fish embroidered on the back and fur around the collar, and she put it on; the King of the Known World never wore anything other deep blue, except briefly at his wedding when he wore his bride’s cloak, because the Ocean Blue Palace overlooked the Great Sea, and most of the local commerce was focused around fishing.

“You have exchanged robes with each other as a sign of your new covenantal oneness.  You have exchanged identities. Two have become one,” Bacwin pronounced.

“Two have become one,” the crowd of witnesses repeated the traditional words.

“Now the bride and groom must share a meal,” Bacwin directed.

A single chalice of red wine and a solitary plate with baked fish and potatoes was presented to the King and Avelia. They took turns feeding each other and holding up the chalice so the other could drink.

When they were finished with their meal, Bacwin pronounced: “Two have become one.”

“Two have become one,” echoed the crowd loudly.

“Exchange weapons and recite your vows.”

The King presented Avelia with one of his swords: “You are mine, and I belong to you until the sea claims me; there will be no one else but you; your people are my people; your descendants, my descendants; your gods, my gods; your battles, my battles.”

Avelia gave King Umfrey her bow and arrows, although she’d never been very good with them: “You are mine, and I belong to you until the sea claims me; there will be no one else but you; your people are my people; your descendants, my descendants; your gods, my gods; your battles, my battles.”

“You have walked into death through the Blood-Path Ceremony,” Bacwin began again in his haggard voice.  “Should either one of you break your covenant to the other, may the gods strike you down and tear you into pieces like these animals laying before us. And then, may your remains be devoured by birds of the air and flies.  May your body never find rest in the sea.  If you agree, say ‘May it be done unto me.’”

The King and Avelia repeated in unison.

“A marriage covenant is like the Great Sea; it can bring many life-preserving blessings from the Great God of the Sea and all of the other gods, but it can also bring death and destruction.  Should you break this solemn, holy covenant you have cut this day, you will be cursed to die.  In the name of the gods, the only thing that can ever break the covenant—which now binds this man and this woman together in one body and soul—is death.  You belong to each other until the sea claims one of you.”

King Umfrey was well aware that death was the only way to dissolve a covenant.  He’d seen Avelia, with her perfect ebony skin and waist-length midnight hair, watching a tournament with her husband only a few months before; he’d inquired who she was, and then had hired one of his most loyal guards to slit Gerard’s throat when he returned to fight for his King in the battle with the Kingdom Across the Sea.

And then, when the battle was over, the King had announced to his people that in order to honor the memory of one of his brave soldiers, he was taking Gerard’s widow for his wife.  The people were enamored with their gracious ruler.

In the sight of the Great God of the Sea and all of the other gods, Avelia had been released from her marriage covenant to Gerard; the sea had claimed him.

King Umfrey knew she’d been freed by death; now, his until death.

 

“The cruel seas, remember, took him in November.”

Sometimes

Flickr cc Tanya

Flickr cc Tanya

Sometimes a crisis means the world at large is crumbling around us on the nightly news; sometimes it means only your world — or mine. Sometimes pain is physical; sometimes it’s watching your dreams burn and not knowing if you’ll ever be able to carefully pick a few of them out of the ashes. Sometimes mourning means wearing black at a funeral; sometimes it’s walking through the grocery store without the clerk noticing how the flesh encasing your heart has been removed.

Sometimes courage is having hard conversations when you’d rather befriend the silence. Sometimes strength is pulling yourself out of bed and forcing yourself in the shower. Sometimes wisdom is not allowing yourself to think beyond today. Sometimes hope is putting on mascara with the belief that someday, maybe far off or maybe not, you’ll make it through a day without it running. Sometimes faith is the belief that even though you feel like you’re coming apart at the heart-seams, you’ll somehow, in the end, survive — but not without scars.

Sometimes it’s the unknowns that are the scariest. Sometimes crowds are the loneliness. Sometimes the worst part is waking up from a nightmare and realizing that, sadly, it’s not just a dream.

Sometimes finding yourself looks like saying “I,” and meaning it. Sometimes love looks like a willingness to say goodbye. Sometimes bravery looks like entertaining the possibility of new dreams. Sometimes miracles look like going to counseling. Sometimes fortitude looks like deciding to do what’s right for you, even if others don’t understand. Sometimes spirituality looks like finding comfort among the crisp wind and autumn leaves.

Sometimes.

Flash Fiction: I-Candy

Flickr cc Caitlin Doe

Flickr cc Caitlin Doe

Cherry absentmindedly twirled a pencil between her fingers as she stared off into space, impatiently waiting for her morning coffee to finally give her the jump start she needed to make it through yet another dull work day.

She’d been a cubical dweller at the call center for two years now — same old, same old day in and day out. Customers always had the same questions, the same problems. Peach, her cubical neighbor, always ate the same ham sandwich for lunch, she never even spiced things up by adding mustard. And the water cooler gossip was always the same — so-and-so was lazy and probably was faking being sick that day and no-one-cares-who just went through a breakup or had a baby or did something equally normal. The monotonousness of it all was mind numbing.

But then, the phone rang …

Cherry blinked, trying to wake up, while forcing a manic, playful smile onto her face before answering the phone in her best Malibu Barbie voice: “Thank you for calling I-Candy, this is Cherry speaking.”

“Seriously? Your name is Cherry?” the woman on the other end of the line said sarcastically. 

“Uh, well, no — uh,” said Cherry. Normally customers seemed to like her work-assigned name. And besides, all the customer service girls had them. Attempting to return to her usual script Cherry said: “If you order a six-month cam subscription today, we’ll throw in an I-Candy calendar for free!”

“No, I will not be needing a calendar,” the woman on the other end of the line said coldly.

“Well, supplies are limited so if you change your mind, you’ll want to call back soon!” Cherry was naturally misanthropic so the fact she’d not only landed a job at the call center but had been there for two years and could still work up an almost genuine-sounding enthusiasm should constitute a miracle.

“No, I don’t want a ‘candy calender.’ I just want to cancel my son’s subscription.” She sounded serious, annoyed. And clearly wanted to get off the phone as quickly as possible. Cherry wanted to get off the phone, too.

“Uh. Your son’s subscription?” Cherry asked awkwardly. Son — now that’s something Cherry had never heard in her 742 days as an employee at the costumer service help desk.

The woman on the phone answered in the affirmative.

Awkwardly Cherry looked around to see if any of her coworkers were eavesdropping, and then almost whispered into the receiver: “Uh, ma’am, are you aware that I-Candy is … well, uh … an adult company?”

“Yes, I know — my 18-year-old son was looking at pornography. And not only that but he was stupid enough to drain every penny from his savings account on it!”

“Oh, wow,” said Cherry. She hadn’t been taught the correct response to this problem in training.

“He signed up for the two-week trial and didn’t bother to cancel his subscription! So he’s making his mother — his mother! — do it because he has a phone phobia.”

“Oh,” Cherry didn’t know what else to say. This wasn’t one of the usual customer complaints. She was now completely off script.

“My son has a phone phobia that’s so bad that he’d rather tell his mother — his mother who told him that as long as I was paying for the internet that wasn’t okay! — that he’d drained his bank account looking at pornography than just call and cancel his subscription, himself. But he can live webcam with strange women without his phobia kicking in? I can’t even begin to understand that!” She ended with a frustrated “uhhhhh!.” 

“Um, yeah, that is … confusing,” Cherry admitted truthfully.

At this point Peach had peeked over the cubicle wall that separated their desks to see if Cherry was busy and noticed that Cherry was making a very strange face.

When Cherry caught Peach’s eye all she could think to do was mouth the words “someone’s mother” — as if it was a synonym for “HELP ME!” — while pointing in shock at her headset.

Peach’s entire body began to shake from laughter. “A mother called? A mother! We’ve never had anyone’s mother call here!” They were used to all kinds of customers. They were even used to sexual harassment — in fact, it was pretty much just part of the job (their assigned work names seemed to even encourage it). But no one had ever even heard of a mother calling the I-Candy customer service line.

“Guys!” Peach announced to the whole office, “Cherry is on the phone with someone’s mother!” The cubicle dwellers began popping up like meerkats out of their holes; everyone stared at poor Cherry as she tried to maintain her pep despite the extreme awkwardness of the situation.

Ten minutes later the unusual, strange, uncomfortable, no-good phone call somehow came to an end. The subscription was cancelled and both parties were, undoubtedly, relieved to be off the phone. At this point the entire office had completely stopped working — someone’s mother had called!

Sugar, the current supervisor on the floor, told Cherry she could take her 10 minute break early so she’d have a few moments to recover from the shock before her next call. And as she stood by the water cooler on break, recounting the strange thing that had just happened to her coworkers — each one laughing so hard they were almost in tears — it wasn’t dull.

Even though Peach still ate her usual, boring ham sandwich without mustard and no-one-cares-who was still pregnant or had gotten back together with their ex, work that day certainly wasn’t boring.

The next day, when Cherry arrived at work, someone had posted a sign on the office wall. It read:

Number of work days without somebody’s mother calling: 1

13 Things I’ve Learned About Blogging

Flickr cc Christian Gonzalez

Flickr cc Christian Gonzalez

This month my little indie blog celebrates it’s 1st birthday. Happy birthday, Blog! And, in honor of its birthday, I decided to write up some of the things I’ve learned about blogging over the last year. Not that I’ve learned anything terribly profound but it has been a learning experience, nonetheless.

1.  Be yourself.

When I was in my teens I used to keep in touch with the majority of my friends via email. One of my pen pals was a big fan of classic literature, Jane Austen in particular. And her emails seemed to mimic the language she loved and admired in Austen’s work. But it wasn’t how she usually talked, so it ended up sounding strange, stilted, awkward when she randomly pulled out an Austen-esque phrase in an otherwise very modern-toned email.

A few years later, however, her writing voice began to relax; it began to sound more like her real voice, and that made all the difference. She went from being an okay writer with random awkwardly archaic phrasing to being a good writer because she embraced her own voice.

We all have people we admire. As far as essayists go, I love Anne Lamott and David Sedaris’ writing voices probably more than anyone. I love them because they’re hysterical and raw but, more than anything, because they’re voices are so individual, so specific to them. But I’m not them. And I shouldn’t try to be. Learning to relax, to figure out what quirky things I bring to a page of freshly typed text, how to sound like myself, not the self I’d like to be …  it feels like the first step when it comes to any type of writing.

2. Don’t be afraid to take a chance.

Take yourself and your blog seriously. However, this isn’t the New York Times, so it’s okay to play around. I’d never really written fiction before but I tried out a couple of flash fiction pieces over the last year because it’s my blog and I can do that. Am I the next great American novelist? Certainly not, but I learned, to my surprise, I actually enjoy mucking around with short fictional pieces.

Blogs can be a great place to take a chance, try something new; they’re like the writing version of a sketch book.

3. Don’t let numbers determine the value of what you’ve created.

Don’t weigh the value of an article, story, poem, photograph, recipe, or advice piece based on how many “likes,” comments, or reblogs it’s gotten. Some of my personal favorite posts, the ones that I feel like I really put my heart into, haven’t been as popular as some less soul-felt pieces. And that’s okay. A lot of it’s just luck.

Sometimes I have to remind myself, “I don’t care who reads it; I like it, and that’s all that matters.” Sometimes I get hits, sometimes I don’t. But that’s not what determines the worth of something I’ve written, my blog as a whole, or my ability as an indie blogger.

4. Write for an online audience.

When it comes to writing — and talking, if I’m feeling comfortable with someone — I can be wordy. (Believe it or not, most of my posts have been whittled down in word count from their original first draft.) But very long columns of text are extremely hard to read online.

I’ve found that when it comes to reading other blogs, if a post is going to be long I greatly appreciate some sort of visual break — they’re like benches along a trail that give you a sense of hope while exercising, even if you don’t end up using all of them. Otherwise, it feels like a lot more work visually and I’m more apt to click back over to Facebook to see if anyone’s shared any cute cat videos in the last hour.

Up until very recently, I’d worked as a writing tutor for college freshman and sophomores for four years. I spent my days helping students to understand and execute good thesis statements, topic sentences, body paragraphs, transition sentences, and closing sentences. It was the very beginning of academic writing, so it was rigidly structured, brain-numbingly formulaic, and void of personality.

Learning to write for an online audience, for me, means chopping up paragraphs, forgoing topic sentences, and focusing on writing how I talk rather than how my English 101 teacher taught me to write an MLA-style research paper. Basically, it means relaxing and insuring there aren’t gigantic blocks of text strewn throughout a post.

5. Interact with readers.

I don’t have a ton of active reads, but I love the ones I have. And sometimes I actually greatly appreciate the fact that my blog isn’t one of those super crazy busy ones because it gives me the chance to respond personally to each of my readers. It makes blogging more of a conversation and less of a grossly long monologue by yours truly (although, it’s still that, too).

6. Don’t feed the trolls 

It’s not worth it. Not ever. The instant you know a comment is courtesy of a troll, delete it. Trust me, you don’t need to know what other random crap they decided to spew in your direction; it doesn’t say anything about you, but it says a lot about them. And it’s not worth your time.

And, besides, if you do read it then you’ll likely spend minutes, maybe hours, agonizing over how you’re going to respond or why someone could think let alone say something like that. And that’s exactly what they want. It’ll save you a lot of time and emotional trauma to just push that delete button. Sometimes people can be extremely mean — even on the most non-threatening posts. But you’re lord and master of your blog, so you can sentence any comment you like to a swift execution. And for the sake of your sanity, you should.

7. Don’t make your blog’s focus too narrow.

I’ve had blogs in the past with very narrow focuses and I quickly ran out of things to say. The general theme of this blog, as my subtitle says, is “a highly fragmented memoir.” I wanted to practice writing creative non-fiction, and was happy to have company. It’s what I enjoy writing and the focus is broad enough that I won’t outgrow this blog nearly as quickly as I’ve outgrown others in the past.

8. Don’t write for your critics.

Blogger Rachel Held Evans said in a tweet: “Don’t write for your critics. Write for the people you want to make feel less alone.” Maybe you want to help new cooks feel less alone in their culinary misadventures or maybe you want to help the exhausted parent feel a little less alone. Or maybe you’re writing for the people you want to make laugh or the ones who share a similar dream. Or maybe you’re writing for the people who will enjoy the fictional worlds you carefully craft with your prose. Whoever your target audience is, focus on them — not the random trolls.

9. Read other blogs but don’t try to be them.

I’ve found it helpful to look over other blogs — especially blogs put out by published authors because they take blogging very seriously — because it’s given me some helpful ideas of how to organize posts or how often to post.

When I find myself feeling annoyed — “Ugh. Another update email? They seriously posted another blog post today?” — then I suspect that maybe that’s something to put on my things-not-to-do list. And when I find myself appreciating something like an informative but quirky About page or well-organized, easy-to-navigate categories I try to figure out how to do that in my own way. But I don’t try to be their clone, either.

10. Don’t publish your first draft.

I feel like as a writing tutor I should know better because I always told my students to never, never, never turn in a rough draft to their teachers.

But I’ve been guilty of first-draft blogging, myself. And sometimes even after it’s in its second draft I won’t notice all of the typos. So I’m finding it’s helpful to have someone look over it before I post it. And if there’s a little too much snark or bite or whatever in a piece, it gives me time to sand it down a little before sharing it with the world.

If I’m not sure about a post I leave it in “draft” form for a while. It gives me time to evaluate it later when I’ve gotten a little distance from it.

11. Don’t blog mad.

It’s easy to passionately pound on the keyboard as smoke billows out of my ears. But those are the posts that need to sit, maybe even for a few days, so that I can evaluate them when my nostrils are no longer flaring.

12. Citation, citation, citation.

The first time I ever saw one of my posts on someone else’s blog — the entire thing, just copied and pasted somewhere without my permission and without so much as my name — I was irate. After it happened a few more times, I packed up all my toys and didn’t return to the world of blogging for several years. Maybe it was an extreme reaction. But it hurt. I was mad. And I felt like I couldn’t keep my posts safe, so I didn’t want them online.

I’ve come to realize, unfortunately, that’s one of the hazards of blogging. But I don’t ever want to cause someone else this same frustration and anger because I loved their work — whether it be a photograph, poem, blog post, whatever — but didn’t bother to cite it correctly.

A word to the wise: it’s better to be too careful when it comes to copyright than not careful enough. Not only is it obeying the law (just because it’s online does not make it Public Domain) but it’s also good manners and it’ll win you more friends online if you don’t steal other people’s stuff.

Basic rule of thumb: NEVER quote an entire piece without permission, even if you include the author’s name (this isn’t quoting, it’s stealing). And when you do quote a section of a piece, ALWAYS include the author’s full name and a link back to the source (I try to also include the title of the post or article that I’m quoting from because I’d appreciate it if someone added that extra bit of information if they were citing me but it’s not essential).

It’s also helpful if you’re quoting an author to reference what work it’s from and page number because then, if your readers like it, they can find it themselves. And it adds a level of professionalism and credibility to your work.

13. Sometimes stories communicate better than points.

I made a list of the top 19 reason I left church and thought about posting it, but I realized after sitting on the post for a few days that each bullet point sounded so harsh and didn’t even begin to fully express the stories and heartache behind them. 

For example, saying “I think church youth groups can be unsafe” is very different than telling the story of how when I was 14 one of my youth leaders, he was in his mid-twenties, began acting inappropriately — constantly looking for a chance to talk to me, emailing me every single day, sitting next to me and leaning on me, always trying to touch me, etc. It made me very uncomfortable, and the youth pastor, even when my mother complained, did nothing. 

After I graduated from high school and moved out of the area, my former youth leader continued to stalk me online for years. It was super creepy. And he later made the local news because he was arrested for possession of child pornography and for sexually assaulting kindergarten girls — girls, plural — while working as a school bus driver. According to the news, the creep says there could be as many as 30 victims total — and the only reason it’s not 31 is because I had a very involved mom who saw the red flags when no one else did.

Do you see the difference? Saying “I think church youth groups can be unsafe” sounds judgmental, flippant, and harsh. Sharing the story — or even just a few facts from the story, like above — shows that sometimes, at least occasionally, church youth groups can be unsafe. And I believe this because I’ve personally experienced this scary thing firsthand. It takes it from a flippant, random point on a list to a personal, frightening story from my past. It makes it personal and relatable.

Obviously, you don’t have to tell stories that are so personal. But sometimes telling the story behind why you feel or think something or a story that illustrates a point you’d like to make can go over better than a list of what can feel like cold declarations.

What I’m Into: July 2014

Flickr cc Bravo_Zulu_

Flickr cc Bravo_Zulu_

I’ve noticed that “What I’m Into” posts are fairly popular around the blogosphere these days and I enjoy reading over them, probably because it feels a bit like the electronic version of snooping through someone else’s bookcase (always a good way to get to know a person better). So I thought I’d give it a try. Snoop away. And let me know what you’ve been into lately.

What Books I’m Reading: 

1. Pastrix: The Beautiful, Cranky Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Pastrix (a not-exactly-flattering term used by some when talking about women pastors) is a memoir by a heavily tattooed former professional comedian turned Lutheran (ELCA) pastor, which turns out to be an unusual but very page-turn-worthy combination in a writer. The book is hysterical, raw, irreverent, insightful, and beautiful all at the same time. Sometimes I literally laughed out loud, and other times Bolz-Weber brought me to tears. I loved it.

I’m trying, slowly, to rebuilt the faith / spiritual section of my home library. Tossed out almost all of the books from my days at my ex-church. Some of them were honestly a waste of a good tree, and I’m sure did a lot more damage than good; others were fine but I knew that reading through them again would bring up all kinds of lovely memories of my ex-church, so it seemed better — perhaps healthier — to start over in the book department.

As a result, when I realized that I’d never read a book by a pastor who was a woman — not ever — it seemed like it was about time I did. And there was something healing about it. Perhaps kind of empowering, too. Bolz-Weber is so different from the overly-girly writers with their pink, frilly paperbacks on how to be the real-life God-fearing version of June Cleaver that I was encouraged by church youth group leaders to read while in my teens. And I think I needed that. I think it helped remind me why I’ve held onto Christianity, despite having been so hurt by Christian churches in the past.

More than anything though, I picked it put because I just wanted a damn good quirky essay book and Pastrix is certainly that. Here’s a excerpt from one of my favorite chapters, a little more serious than the general tone of the book but beautiful:

I was the chaplain, but I didn’t have answers for anyone. I’d bring water, make some calls for them, keep bugging the doctors to provide more information, but words of wisdom I had none. I just felt the unfairness of it all. I felt the uncontrollable terror of loss, the finality of someone never having a father again. I felt the sadness that is both poetic and grotesque. I would stand by and witness the disfiguring emotional process we politely call grief and, yes, I was aware of God’s presence, but I wanted to slap the hell out of him or her or it. (p. 83)

2. Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren F. Winner

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Still. Amazon recommended it to me based on previous purchases and, in an impulsive moment, I added it to my electronic shopping cart, not entirely sure what I was getting myself into but hoping it was going to be worth the money.

And it certainly was. As it turns out, I love Winner’s writing voice. Poetic, but not flowery; raw, but not crass. Beautiful. This is a completely different faith-themed memoir than Pastrix – Winner is a historian and professor at Duke Divinity School and serious literary nerd who adores John Updike — but it’s another one I’m definitely adding to my slowly-growing shelf of spiritual-related titles.

Still is less of your standard autobiography and more a collection of snapshots, sketches even, that take place after Winner’s marriage of six years comes to an end. In addition to processing through the grief and changes that come with her new life stage, she’s also reached what she refers to as the “middle stage” in her spiritual journey. Not the happy, excited beginning of an early convert, nor the end of a faith journey marked by maturity — but the awkward, questioning, boring, lonely time in the middle. Winner writes, “I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless, prone to wander. And yet glimmers of holy keep interrupting my gaze” (p. XIV).

This isn’t a how-to book on surviving the “middle stage” of a spiritual journey but more of a companion for the trip. Here’s an excerpt to give you a taste of Winner’s writing style:

The loneliness came in an instant, more sudden than weather. For the first three hours of the day, I was perfectly placid in my seclusion; now I feel as though I am about to disappear.

But I can stay in this for five minutes, I tell myself. I don’t have to exercyle or open a bottle of gin. I can ask the loneliness what she has for me. 

I tell the loneliness to pull up a seat. I notice she does not look so very threatening after all — she has a touch of the dowager about her, actually. She is clutching a handbag made of fat white beads, and she smells of rose water … I lean back. I breathe  … I ask her what she has for me. She takes a letter opener from her bag and tells me she can kill me if she wants to. (p. 58)

What Articles I’m Reading: 

1. The Loss of Lament by blogger Andy Campbell

There are few things that bother me the way perky, unthinking Christian cliches do — “If God brings you to it, he’ll bring you through it” or “God will work it all out together for good” or “God will never give you more than you can handle.” Or someone tries to comfort someone by minimizing their pain — “Well, it could be a lot worse.” Or scolds them when they’re confused, lost, and angry. Or just changes the subject to something that feels less awkward.

Campbell writes about Christians: “Our concept of God is often way too small to accommodate lament. It makes people uncomfortable when you blame God for things. We appear to have  the praise and blessing thing down, but when it comes to engaging in lament together, we’re lost.”

2. How the Purity Culture Hurts Guys by blogger David M. Schell

I can relate with growing up in the “Purity Culture” (a movement among many conservative Evangelical churches that focuses on sexual purity — chastity, women dressing modestly, etc. — and often, but not always, involves things like wearing “purity rings”). I’ve written some about how it was hurtful to me, as a woman. So it was interesting to hear a guy’s prospective:

When your average 20-something single guy walks onto a beach full of beautiful women in bikinis, he might check them out and be interested in them, but his “temptation” is absolutely nothing compared to what a young man in purity culture feels. He knows it’s wrong, which feeds his desire, which feeds his guilt, which feeds his desire. That poor kid has a molotov cocktail of guilt, shame, and knowing-it’s-wrong with a fuse of temptation sticking out and soaked in gasoline.

3. Men aren’t entitled to women’s time or affection. But it’s a hard lesson to learn by Cord Jefferson, published on The Guardian 

Thought this was an interesting article on the underlying sexism of “the friendzone” idea. Jefferson writes:

[T]he “friendzone”, a term coined a decade ago on Friends to describe a scenario in which a man is attracted to a woman who only seeks a platonic relationship with him. Women tend to call that kind of partnering “friendship” – but, to many men, “friendship” doesn’t capture the degradation they apparently feel at the prospect of spending time or being emotionally intimate with women who are uninterested in having romantic relationships with them.

Alright, now it’s your turn. So, what have you been into over the last few weeks? Any books, articles, movies, or music that’s really caught your attention recently?

The Great Micro-Manager in the Sky

Flickr cc Mike Lewinski

Flickr cc Mike Lewinski

I was beginning to panic. Every turn I took seemed to lead nowhere, and the combination of hay-related allergies and the anxiety that was quickly bubbling up inside of me was causing everything to look swimmy.

I was lost.

I had wanted to complete the hay maze on my own. After all, I was about 11-years-old — nearly an adult. I could do this. So I’d intentionally split off from my family in order to later be able to savor the sweet victory of defeating the autumnal-themed maze all by myself. But, instead, I was close to tears as the walls of itchy hay towered over me in defiance. Unlike a corn maze, I couldn’t even cheat and cut right through the wall. Lost. Alone. Scared.

But then my dad’s voice cut through all the confusion and panic the way I wished I could cut through the fortress of hay: “Kelsey! I’m up here!” He was standing on a wooden bridge looking down over the maze (a bridge that had likely been installed with the sole purpose of locating lost children, like me).

“Dad, I’m lost!” I wailed, as if this wasn’t already clear. But he calmly told me that he’d get me out —  I just needed to take a deep breath and follow his directions. Right. Left. Left. Right. Left.

After implementing each direction I’d look above me to where my dad was standing, awaiting my next move. If I had decided I could handle even one of the turns on my own, I would’ve stayed lost. Probably become even more lost. But because I didn’t move without my next order, I made it safely, quickly out of the terrifying maze of hay. I listened to my dad, even when it didn’t seem like that could possibly be the right way to go, and he got me out.

And for a long time, unfortunately, I thought of this frightening experience in a hay maze as not just an October family activity gone awry but as a metaphor for my spiritual life.

 *****

About seven years after the hay maze incident, I was a senior in high school trying to decide how to spend my summer after graduation (it was 2005). And I was contemplating “serving” (volunteering to work 40+ hours a week for free) at a bible college in Europe that was within my church’s denomination of sorts.

My ex-church was a part of what members often referred to as a “non-denominational denomination.”  Put another way, the churches were all related but there wasn’t the same type of system set up to oversee and check on each individual church that a lot of other denominations have. For whatever reason, we also didn’t believe in seminaries. So our pastors, at best, had a two-year certificate from an unaccredited bible college within our “non-denominational denomination” (contrast this with Lutherans or Presbyterians whose pastors all have at least a Master’s of Divinity). But usually our pastors didn’t even have an unaccredited certificate to their name, and honestly it showed.

The bible college in Europe focused specifically on “missions” (proselytizing non-Western, often non-white people groups). And at the time, that was a plus as far as I was concerned because studying “missions” at bible college was about the closest you could get within our “non-denominational denomination” to focusing on social justice issues like poverty (there was no chance in hell of sexism, racism, or homophobia being addressed). And, truth be told, I really wanted to go to Europe and living there for two years sounded amazing.

So I wanted to “serve” for the summer (all three and a half months of it) at the bible college in order to see if that’s really what I wanted to do after high school. And I wanted to have a summer adventure in Europe — meet new people, go somewhere I’d never been before, travel by myself.

However, despite a lot of prayer, some fasting, talking with pastors at church, and reading multiple books on “the will of God” I couldn’t figure out what direction in my hay-maze-of-a-life God wanted me to go. So I froze. Completely. I waited for direction, afraid I’d make the wrong decision and completely throw off “God’s plan” for my life.

*****

The facts of the situation were simple:

a) Thanks to a tremendous amount of babysitting, I had the money to cover my globe-trotting religious-y summer

b) I didn’t have any other summer commitments that would conflict with it

c) My family was supportive

d) I really wanted to go

But I lost so much sleep over that decision. I spent so much time agonizing over whether or not it was “God’s will” for me to spend the summer in Europe or if he had something else “planned” for my summer. A lot of times religious books compared God to an author — carefully writing out each person’s life. And I didn’t want to be the character who suddenly went rogue and missed out on whatever grand ending the Cosmic Author had all worked out in his rough draft.

*****

This decision-making paralysis wasn’t something new; it’d started a few years before, not long after starting high school. I wanted to take my faith seriously; I did take it seriously. Very seriously. And somehow I lost the ability to make decisions completely while I was in high school because of it (something that’s actually an earmark of Religious Trauma Syndrome).

Just like when I was in the maze, I awaited my next marching orders. I didn’t want to go the wrong way. I wanted so badly to please the Great Micro-Manager in the Sky that I’d completely freeze when it came to making even the smallest of decisions. Even tiny, innocuous decisions were transformed into great moral dilemmas — what did God what?

I was having so much trouble making decisions in high school that I started reading books about it (of course, they were all religious books), but that only made it worse. The books compared Jesus to a sheep herder and Christians to sheep — and good little sheep, of course, know their master’s voice. But I couldn’t figure it out. I couldn’t hear him or see any flashing Vegas-style spiritual signs lighting up the sky. I was still left wondering, “Do I turn right or left?” And that just added guilt to an already anxiety-filled situation. I ought to know.

*****

It’s almost funny, I was told so often that I had “freedom” — “freedom in Christ” and “freedom from sin.” I think I was told it so often that I believed it, even though freedom wasn’t at all a theme in my life. Legalism, guilt, endless fear of doing the “wrong” thing characterized the day-to-day, but not freedom.

I ended up going, despite the months of confusion leading up to the final decision. I saw some of Europe, met new people, tried new types of food, worked in a coffee shop for the summer, and my time there did help me to decide whether or not to go to bible college. (Instead of going to bible college, I ended up leaving my “non-denominational denomination” once I was stateside. A summer well spent.)

Several years later, when I decided to go to community college — I decided I was tired of working a dead-end retail job and missed learning — I registered and a few months later I was taking classes. No inner turmoil or wondering what direction my Daddy in the Sky wanted me to go, just a “Yes, that sounds like something I’d enjoy. I’ll do that” decision. In other words, freedom.

I still find it hard to make decisions. I start feeling the worry that I’ll make the “wrong” decision and have to remind myself that I’m most likely not facing a moral dilemma — it’s just a matter of what works out best or what’s the smart thing to do or what I’d prefer.

Decision making without the agony: still feels like a novel concept. But I’m liking it.

The (Apparent) Sin of Shyness

Flickr cc martinak15

Flickr cc martinak15

If my own days in a Fundamentalist Youth Group are any indication of the norm, I think there are several important key components to being a successful youth pastor: lack of concern for safety, mania, and a deep and abiding belief in both the Slippery Slope and the Straw Man fallacy.

Spouting fallacies was practically Youth Pastor’s spiritual gift. I mean, if there’d been a cheesy religious-themed sequel to the prophetic children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, he would’ve written it (mostly likely the apocalyptic-themed work would’ve sported the catchy title If You Give a Teenager a Secular CD or something equally terrifying). Once, when he noticed I hadn’t been attending Wednesday Youth Group (although, I still went every Sunday), he asked where I’d been. I said I was teaching the three-year-old class at church. To this, he replied with a wary: “It all starts with missing Youth Group on Wednesdays …”

He was also pretty good at straw manning. My first lesson about feminists came from a conversation with him. Feminists — they were those weird, overbearing girls who compared themselves to fish and guys to unneeded bicycles. He said it was best to stay clear of them. And I wasn’t really interested in meeting one because as a shy Freshman this fish would’ve happily had a bicycle so much as talk to her, so I certainly wasn’t a feminist. (Or at least that’s what I thought until I actually met professors with their Ph.D. in Women’s Studies, and learned they were pretty awesome and didn’t hate bicycles or boys.)

In short, Youth Pastor was an alarmist who firmly believed he knew a whole lot more about the world and everything from the Five Points of Calvinism to evolutionary biology than he actually did. He also thought he knew a lot more about me than he did.

*****

“So, have you been praying about it?” Youth Pastor asked as I hauled a box of cast-off items for the church garage sale. He’d been nagging about it a lot, nearly every single time I saw him. I was starting to dread seeing him because he never asked about anything else anymore.

“Nope,” I said with uncharacteristic defiance. No, I hadn’t prayed about it — not even once. In fact, I fully intended to never even utter a single spiritual syllable about the matter.

“You’re never going to change if you don’t start praying about it,” he said, beginning his usual lecture in a way that might have been mistaken for playful to someone who didn’t know he’d been giving it to me every Wednesday and Sunday for weeks. “You need to start by asking God to help you change.” Change. Kelsey, you need to change. God wants you to change.

He never gave any thought to the idea that maybe I didn’t want to change. Or that maybe nothing was wrong with me.

Youth Pastor had decided that I needed to “pray away the shy.” He wanted me to act more like his favorite students who were often rambunctious in an over-the-top class-clown sort of way. He’d point them out, and tell me that God wanted me to be more like that. I guess God prefers extroverts — who come alive in the limelight and pull random high school pranks — to quiet nerdy bookworms.

*****

I’ve always been introverted — spending time at home with a pile of books, maybe a few good movies, and a journal has always been one of my favorite ways to spend a day. But don’t get me wrong, I love spending time with people, too. I just need my all-by-myself time to recharge.

And in high school I was also leery of other teens. After all, I’d seen how mean my age-mates could be.

A lot of times people assume that having Youth Group be the center point of a teen’s social world would be great — a more supportive, kind, spiritual, and moral place to be a teen. Just a bunch of great Jesus lovin’ boys and girls. But in reality, at least at my church, it was a lot closer to a very small town where everyone knows everyone else with a whole lot of cliques and a very active gossip chain. Yuck.

I never did anything gossip-worthy but I knew that while the local news network is very capable of making a lot of nothing into a story, the gossip queens and kings at Youth Group were even more talented at spinning a yarn.

*****

I remember overhearing Popular Girl with her clique in tow discussing one of the outcast girls who was new to the area. At one point Popular Girl and I had been friends, but I’d been traded in for an updated model once we hit middle school. Like me, the girl in question wasn’t super trendy and she tended to be on the quieter side. She was also nice, and that really doesn’t earn you cool points when you’re trying to survive the four-year social equivalency of Lord of the Flies. Niceness doesn’t even earn you any points in a Jesus lovin’ Youth Group.

Anyway, the girl had recently dyed her hair and Popular Girl felt it was imperative she express her feelings on the matter: “How can she go from blond to black? It’s disgusting! She’s such a witch!” Her minions murmured their agreement. She’s a witch (they couldn’t use the word that rhymes with witch because, after all, they were nice Christian girls).

Before the words were even fully out of Popular Girl’s mouth the girl walked by, everyone glared and turned up their noses. Disgusting little witch. They wanted nothing to do with this social outcast.

Yep, just a typical day in Youth Group.

Other times reputations were trashed in the name of “prayer requests” — “We need to pray for so-and-so, you’ll never believe what I heard she did with a boy!”

Youth Group: home of queen bees, class clowns, gossip mongers and, supposedly, some very kind individual named Jesus. I didn’t see him very much there … he was probably too nice, and that’s not exactly popularity material.

*****

I was watching, always watching, what was going on in Youth Group. I usually knew who liked who before it was common knowledge, and who the very worst gossips were. And I while at the time I did think Youth Pastor was fun and his wife was sweet, I also thought he could be more than a little immature. And severely manic.

I never told Youth Pastor though that he needed to start “praying the mania way.” I never told him that maybe he needed to grow up a little — or more than a little. But he had the nerve to tell me to “pray away” my shyness — which in a lot of ways wasn’t really shyness at all.

Youth Pastor seemed to think I was caving to fear by not being the outgoing, charismatic Christian teen I was “supposed to” be. He labeled me as “shy,” which honestly made it harder to say anything.

Once you’re labeled “shy,” even if you aren’t, people act weird when you do say something. They practically shriek “It speaks!” when you begin to form a word with your mouth. And if you don’t want to have to deal with all the fuss, you just keep your mouth closed even more.

*****

I certainly did deal with social anxiety but more than anything I was just very introverted. As a result, just the concept of Youth Group, itself, didn’t jive well with my personality type, especially since our Youth Group was so large. I would’ve been happy to connect with a couple of people I’d selected myself, but that just wasn’t how it was done. In church you’re often age-segregated from everyone else, so if you didn’t get along with the other people your age, you were kind of screwed.

As a result, for me one of the hardest parts of Youth Group was forced friendships (or, to use a church-y word, “fellowship”). I didn’t do well even being told, “Now turn to the people next to you and say good morning.” I have a pretty big personal bubble and randomly touching strangers kind of freaked me out (honestly still does), but being divided into age and gender based groups and told to basically open your heart and soul to people you barely knew was a lot scarier (“Now break into your small groups and discuss some of your biggest personal sin issues.” Oh, joy!).

And I also knew how well the gossip chain worked in Youth Group (even among the adult leaders), so I never felt like my stories or secrets or hurts or whatever would truly be safe.

In fact, I told mom once on the way home from horse back riding lessons that I was more afraid to go to Youth Group than I was to ride Teacup — the crabby, ill-mannered old horse that was just dying to buck me off or squish me against the barn wall.  I felt so out of place. So unwanted. So invisible, or when I wasn’t invisible it was because I was in trouble with a leader for something stupid (like the time I was slut-shamed for side hugging a boy).

Supposedly church was about relationships and authenticity, but I learned how to sensor myself in Youth Group: “Would I want this being spread throughout the entire church? Do I want people ‘praying’ [gossiping] about this?” The answer was usually no.

*****

Well, Youth Pastor, I’m still not praying that God use his god-magic to make me the carbon copy of you but I am unlearning what I learned in your Youth Group; I’m learning how to be honest and open. Slowly, this sort of thing takes time. And I am learning to have a voice. And I’m using my voice to tell people just how much hurt you — and so many youth pastors like you — have caused their spiritual charges … which I suspect isn’t really what you had in mind when you told me to pray away my quietness so many years ago.

Author’s note: For those of you who are new to my blog, check out Blaming the Victim: Youth-Group Style and Letting Go of Rocks: Thoughts on Healing for a fuller picture of not only my time in Youth Group but what my youth pastor specifically was like.

Feeling at Home Among the Icons

Flickr cc Piano Piano!

Flickr cc Piano Piano!

The icons, with their piercing eyes and golden frames covered practically every available inch of wall. It felt cluttered, yet spiritual; foreign, yet beautiful. Similarly to how a grandmother’s house filled with a stockpile of porcelain cats can feel cluttered and foreign-to-this-decade, yet homey all at the same time.

As a child, I would’ve been scared as the icons peered down on me and the strong smell of incense entered my nostrils. I would’ve wondered if they were “real Christians” because this specific tradition, Orthodoxy, would’ve been so foreign to my own angsty non-denominational upbringing. I would’ve missed the beauty of the artwork and the history, faith and cultural traditions it represented. I would’ve just seen something foreign to my fundamentalist little eyes — and that lack of familiarity would’ve likely frightened me.

However, as I stood inside the little Orthodox church in Sitka, Alaska, first port of call on our honeymoon cruise, far from my lovely Seattle, I felt surprisingly comfortable.

The foreign-to-me-ness of the Orthodox tradition would’ve, doubtlessly, confused and concerned me as a kid. I probably would’ve prayed for the poor people who thought they were Christians but didn’t really love Jesus. How could they when their pictures of him on the walls looked so different than the picture in my head? Yup, they would’ve needed my prayers.

*****

I prayed a lot for a child, maybe for a person generally. I dunno. (Prayer is sort of like sex, no one really knows how their numbers rank compared to everyone else’s. And even if you were to ask, they might overestimate a bit.) I’d pray when I’d see a stranger in tears or when I went to bed, and I’d pray an apology the next morning if I fell asleep mid-pray. It seemed rude, like not saying goodbye when you were on the telephone, and I felt badly that I would’ve kept the God of the Universe waiting for the next part of my sentence all night long. After all, he’s kind of a busy guy.

For such a little kid, I used to pray big prayers. Elegant prayers. Powerful prayers. Long prayers. And as I got older, I was routinely complemented on them — something that simultaneously patted my ego and made me feel kind of uncomfortable. Were prayer compliments even appropriate? (I was also complimented sometimes by adults at church on my “worship” because they said I was “on fire” — guess I look really sincere while clapping along with a praise song.) But despite having earned all my prayer warrior Girl Scout badges and a few “fire” ones too, the whole prayer thing makes me feel kind of awkward these days.

Part of me thinks I want prayer to look a little more like my yoga routine (well, when I actually bother to get out of bed early enough to have a routine). Quiet, private and completely showy-free as I very awkwardly attempt my sun salutes in my mismatched PJs while huffing, complaining, and fighting with my cat over the yoga mat. It’s not really spiritual but, hey, it’s an honest moment.

Author Anne Lamott says her favorite prayers are “help me, help me, help me” and “thank you, thank you, thank you.” And that’s about as good as it gets these days. Although, sometimes there’s a “what the hell is going on!” thrown into the mix, too.

I prayed inside that little church in Sitka with the iconography and the Alice-blue dome. But I didn’t pray one of my old Dear God prayers from my childhood — structured, formal, overly polite — that would’ve resulted in a compliment about how “on fire” or “spiritually mature” I was. I didn’t apologize that I hadn’t rung the Big Guy up in a while. I just sort of thought, “Hey, this isn’t that bad. I’m in a church and it’s not scary.” And maybe he was listening.

*****

I wasn’t afraid standing in the Orthodox church — which isn’t novel because I was such an ethnocentric little church-y kiddo but because I’ve got a massive case of church PTSD.

And I’m not throwing that term around lightly. I’ve been officially diagnosed with PTSD which has come complete with a matching set of panic attacks, flash backs, and triggers.

At a crucial season in my life, when everything was truly crashing in around me, my church made a hellish situation so much worse.

Sure, when someone at church gave birth the church ladies with their standard-issue casseroles were often the first to arrive at the scene. When someone had surgery the prayer chain would swoop into action — phone calls would be made, emails would sent and, I’d assume, prayers would be prayed. We were a family, God’s kiddos, and we took care of each other; we were there for one another … except when we weren’t.

Except when they made a frightening, dangerous situation so much worse.

*****

Therefore, the combination of family trauma being severely escalated due to church folks in leadership telling my mom to “submit to the abuse” and the supposed God-ordained sexism I’d been marinated in for years has resulted in not the foreign church traditions but the familiar being scary now.

Blogger Carly Gelsinger writes in her post Thoughts on Girl At the End of the World:

With each youth conference I attended as a ‘pumped’ teen, I came home a little more screwed up, a little more sick, little more manipulated. Brainwashed.

As I try to make sense of the past, I am drowning from these kinds of triggers … I forget that the words ‘youth conference’ and ‘children’s church’ and ‘church camp’ and ‘youth group’ don’t cause anxiety attacks for the majority of people around me. [emphasis original]

Like Carly, I feel like every youth group camp, every 30 Hour Famine, every purity pledge, every sermon on “Christian modesty,” every rape-friendly teaching in youth group, every mission trip, every Christian-style slut shaming and victim-blaming I witnessed or experienced firsthand left me a little more screwed up, sick, and manipulated.

So many church-y things that most people don’t even bat an eye at — children’s church, vacation bible school, youth group, youth camps, purity rings, mission trips to Mexico — cause me anxiety to even just hear about. I find myself inhaling, almost holding my breath, as my heart begins to speed up — the same way it does when a scene with domestic violence randomly shows up on my TV screen.

I know it all so well. I know the vernacular, the songs, the activities and events, the seminal works, the Noah’s art themed crafts. It’s the culture of my childhood and adolescence. A culture I’m still healing from.

And as I stood underneath the blue dome and the icons in the historic little Orthodox church in Sitka, Alaska I felt — for the first time in a long time — like I’d walked into a church building without stepping on a landmine of triggers. I was touring the historic site; it wasn’t a Sunday morning. Yet, it felt familiar but still foreign enough to not send me running out the door. It was nice. And kind of healing.

But then, of course, my allergy to incense kicked in. My head began to feel like someone was going at my brain with a pickaxe, and I had to walk back outside into the fresh Alaskan air. But spending a few minutes in that little Orthodox church was nice.